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Medieval buildings, romantic canals and charming cobbled streets make Bruges, Belgium, look like a real-life fairytale. But there’s more to Bruges than its beauty. From delicious handmade chocolates to Michelin-starred restaurants and art museums, there are many things to do in Bruges. At any time of the year, but even more so at Christmas.
1. Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Bruges (or Brugge, in Flemish) is a small but beautiful, historic town in Belgium. As it is less than an hour by train from Brussels, it makes for a perfect day trip. However, there’s so much to see and do in Bruges, that ideally you should spend a weekend there. Besides, it is so idyllic that you won’t want to leave soon anyway!
In fact, the historic centre of Bruges is so well preserved, that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site of “Outstanding Universal Value”. Surely this is enough of a reason to visit Bruges, right? Not to mention the chocolate!
2. Go on a canal boat tour
Back in the Middle Ages, Bruges was an important European trade center, thanks to its port nearby, Zeebrugge. Hence the many canals, which at the time were used to ferry goods to and from the city. After all, this system of canals has given Bruges its nickname, “Venice of the North”.
Probably the best way to explore the canals is to go on one of the many boat tours available. Although at first it seemed a rather touristy thing to do, afterwards I was really happy I did it. You get a whole new perspective on a city when you see it from its river or, in this case, canals. I really enjoyed the boat ride, even though it was cold (I went to Bruges in late November).
The canal tours run several times a day, from March to mid-November. They start from Rosary Quay (Rozenhoedkaai), cost 8 Euros and take about 30 minutes.
3. See the Lake of Love and Lovers’ Bridge
Bruges is so romantic that it is popular as a romantic destination for people in love. So it would come as no surprise that it has its very own “Lake of Love”.
Hidden in a quiet part of the canals, in the southern part of Bruges, is a beautiful park called Minnewater. At the park’s centre is the “Lake of Love”, with the “Lovers Bridge”. Legend has it that, if you kiss your loved one while on the bridge, your love will last forever.
As it is far away from the hustle and bustle of the more touristy areas, it is the ideal spot for a relaxing stroll by the water. The lake is also home to a great number of swans, who give it its nickname “Swan Lake”.
4. Eat lots of chocolate
Bruges isn’t just another pretty Medieval town; it is also an important centre of chocolate making, with over 50 workshops. In addition to local shops of big names such as Pierre Marcolini and Neuhaus, try also the delicious chocolates and desserts of The Chocolate Line .
If you crave some indulging hot chocolate after exploring the in the winter cold, then head over to The Old Chocolate House. Bruges is a chocolate lover’s paradise!
5. Christmas in Bruges
From late November to Christmas, Bruges gets transformed into a holiday wonderland. The main square, Grand Place / Grote Markt, is the main focus of the city’s Christmas celebrations, with an open-air ice skating rink and all the characteristic gingerbread houses fully decorated.
There is also a picturesque Christmas Village at Simon Stevinplein square, near the main square and just off the main shopping street of Bruges. Alternatively, there is a cozy Midwinter Festival in Balstraat, with plenty of hot wine, delicious waffles and handmade gifts.
6. Horse-drawn carriage tours
Alternatively to boat tours, or rather, in addition to, there are horse-drawn carriage tours. They last for about half an hour and they follow the charming cobbled alleys of the old town. The starting point is on the main market square (Grote Markt / Grand Place), except for Wednesdays, when they start from the Burg.
7. Bruges for art lovers
During the Middle Ages, and more particularly in the 15th century, Bruges was an important centre of trade, which in turn had a positive impact on the arts. It was the time of the “Flemish Primitives”. These included big names such as Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling and more.
Nowadays, you can admire their work at the Groeninge Museum, at St John’s Hospital, St Saviour’s Cathedral and the Church of Our Lady. In the latter, you can also see one of Michelangelo’s most beautiful works. It is the sculpture of “Madonna and Child”, which is made of Carrara marble.
8. Café Culture
There are many beautiful, cozy cafés and bistros in Bruges and they are great for a coffee break. Even more so in winter, when the delicious aroma of hot chocolate is all over the city! My advice is to skip the tourist spots in the main square and instead explore the streets behind it.
One of the best places for coffee is the delightful Books & Brunch. It also serves breakfast, light meals and desserts inside a charming little bookstore (it offers second-hand books). You could also check out GingerBread, a cute, family-run tearoom.
9. Fine Dining
For such a small town, Bruges has a surprising large number of Michelin-starred restaurants. A total of 39 restaurants are recommended by the Michelin guide for 2019. The people of Bruges sure appreciate fine cuisine!
Unfortunately, as I visited Bruges on a day trip from Brussels, I didn’t have the time for a full meal. But you can find the list of current award-winning restaurants at the Visit Bruges website.
10. The Burg
Although the Markt (Market square) get the most visitors, I think the Burg is just as pretty. Or even prettier I’d say!
The buildings here have different styles because they were built in different times. So you get to see Gothic style next to Renaissance and Neoclassical styles. In fact, the Gothic City Hall, was built in 1376. Some say it’s the most beautiful building in Bruges and I agree!
11. Learn the history of lace-making
Back in the day, the lace made in Bruges was considered one of the best in the world. At one time, almost a quarter of the women in the city worked as lacemakers. Even though interest in lace making has fallen in modern times, it is still interesting to see this tradition up close.
Recently, a Lace Museum (Kantcentrum) opened in Bruges, where you can see lacemakers at work. It is housed in the renovated lace school of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. The museum also has multimedia installations that show the different types of lace around the world. A lace workshop is on the second floor.
The Lace Museum is open daily except Sunday. Tickets cost 6€ for adults and 5€ for over-65s and under-26s. Children up to 11 years old go free. More info at kantcentrum.eu
Where to stay in Bruges
For instance, you can stay at Hotel de Tuilerieen, which offers great views to the canal in front. Otherwise, you can opt for the upscale Die Swaene or the Hotel de Orangerie, right at the Rozenhoedkaai. Finally, the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, is the most luxurious options in Bruges, with 16 exclusive rooms.
More budget-friendly, but still very romantic and beautiful, is the Hotel Jan Brito, a historical building. Alternatively, try the more modern and mainstream Anselmus Hotel, with large enough rooms for families.
How to get to Bruges
From Brussels, Bruges is less than an hour by train. The journey is comfortable and trouble-free. Trains leave from Bruxelles-Midi station in Brussels. The station in Bruges is a short ten-minute walk from the city centre.